Collage of photos, City Council, a BLM protest and Activist kneeling

The Columbus Way is what our city leaders call the public/private partnerships that have been used to dress up and showcase the 14th largest city in the U.S.

Former Mayor Mike Coleman’s approach, and continuing under Mayor Ginther, has been successful in developing dozens of projects – the Arena District and Huntington Park, Columbus Commons and Bicentennial Park, the Scioto Mile, the Veterans Memorial, and the Crew Stadium, to name a few.

Here’s an apt description from Smart Columbus, another project that exemplifies the partnership approach:

“The concept of ‘The Columbus Way’ describes the unique community collaborations between the city, the businesses headquartered and located in the region, and nonprofit and academic institutions that make up the Columbus community. A 2015 Harvard Business School case study coined the phrase, capturing a decades-long spirit of collaboration that has been repeatedly tapped to tackle big challenges in central Ohio and transform the region into a world-class destination.”

The Columbus Way has achieved impressive results, and environmental improvements like extended bike trails, new metro parks, removing dams on the rivers, and the Scioto Mile are especially welcome. 

Collaborative efforts on the South Side created the new Reeb Avenue Center offering needed community services along with a new facility for the award-winning South Side Early Learning Center. Excellent libraries in every neighborhood are an important part of why Columbus has earned its status as the best library system in the nation.

But look a little deeper and the Columbus Way reveals its flaws and limitations.

Bob Eckhart’s article, “The Anti-Democratic Nature of the Columbus Way,” (Free Press March 10, 2019) exposed the arrogance of local elite leaders in ignoring local neighborhood concerns, specifically in the efforts to Save the Crew and plan for a new stadium. Further, the Columbus Dispatch wrote an editorial (also March 10, 2019) “The Columbus Way is due for a makeover,” that criticized the Columbus Partnership for not including more local voices in their planning, citing the local NAACP and Columbus Urban League as examples. Moreover, the Dispatch noted:

“the same influential leaders who set the agenda for invoking the Columbus Way also control political interests that depress alternative voices and perpetuate a stranglehold on public office for those appointed by Columbus City Council to any vacancies that arise.”

The Dispatch editorial concludes by asking the economic agenda-setting  Columbus 2020 (now renamed One Columbus) to “set its sights on lifting up low-income families with sustainable wages, reducing the affordable-housing gap, eliminating high infant mortality rates (especially for black babies) and championing the mayor’s initiatives to fight crime and return prosperity to troubled neighborhoods such as Linden and the Hilltop?”

Sixteen months after this editorial was written, our world has changed dramatically. We are now living with the Covid pandemic, the local economy is treading water, tax revenues are shrinking, the climate change clock is ticking, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has arrived, and the Trump Party is adding fuel to the fires of fascism threatening what remains of our democracy. 

Columbus leaders, like cities everywhere, are suddenly being asked to face decades-old problems of poverty and income inequality, affordable housing and health care, rising unemployment in a low wage service economy, dirty energy and climate justice, lack of car-free transit options, and more.

The Democratic Party leadership has become the Emperor with No Clothes. Years of lip service and modest reforms designed to cushion the rough edges of “business as usual” are now seen as inadequate at best, or worse, more empty promises in these unprecedented times.

The pandemic has become an oracle, revealing:

·      The absurdity of our for-profit health care system

·      The fragility of our low-wage consumer economy when businesses close

·      The vulnerability to disease of people eating processed “food" from industrial commodity driven agriculture

·      The community-killing greed that off-shored our manufacturing infrastructure

·      On the positive side, the lowering of CO2 emissions when drivers were quarantined and the fossil-fueled global economy slowed

·      Another pandemic silver lining is how people have had time to reflect on all of the above

·      More pandemic positives – the dream of a new normal with inclusive, resilient communities, including a new economy with living wage jobs, and a Green New Deal.

There is no time left for incremental changes. Radical changes – getting to the root of our broken institutional systems – are now essential if we are to address the problems created by 40 years of concentrated corporate power.

The Columbus Way, driven by the business and civic leadership of the Columbus Partnership, the Mayor and our City Council, is not prepared to make the radical changes because they either directly represent corporate interests or they are dependent or constrained by those corporate interests.

This does not mean real change is not possible. A new and larger table must be set for a host of new players with equal voices.

A Way Forward

Viral cell phone videos finally made the emotional connections needed to wake up a large number of white people, young and old, and begin to burst the middle-class bubble of white privilege. As one protest sign put it, “If you aren’t hungry for social justice, you’re probably full up on white privilege.” The sheer number of diverse and passionate demonstrators in Columbus and around the world offer hope for serious, long-term, systemic changes.

Yes, I hear my skeptic friends. The changes we need could fail. Fascists could solidify the corporate oligarchy (as Jimmy Carter describes our current democracy) and Trump’s MAGA cult and armed militias could steal the November election and, as Noam Chomsky has said, possibly seal the fate of the human species. That is not hyperbole.

That said, our human-made economic, political, and social systems can be changed. We’ve done it before, and we now have a diverse BLM coalition that is demanding change – in the streets, where our leaders and the media cannot fail to notice. The first demand is to defund the police – the Columbus police budget is $360 million or 37 percent of the city’s operating budget. We need to think, reimagine, and reallocate funds so to make every community as safe as our wealthy suburbs.

Defunding the police could be the strategic key which creates safe communities and address disparities in every neighborhood when some of them…

·      Lack access to fresh, healthy food

·      Lack affordable housing

·      Lack health care insurance

·      Lack living wage jobs

·      Lack transportation options

·      Lack access to clean air, water, and soil

·      Lack access to affordable educational opportunities

Our business and civic leaders are keenly aware of all these issues and aware of solutions being proposed by grassroots leaders and movements. Grassroots leaders have been invited to the Big Table conversations sponsored by The Columbus Foundation (our region’s most influential philanthropy nonprofit dedicated to improving central Ohio), but they have not yet been invited to “The Columbus Way Table” that sets the agenda and collaborates to implement the needed changes.

A perfect illustration of our present situation is provided by the BLM demand for a Columbus police Citizen Review Board, which is being met. This unprecedented moment could spark interest in seeing the Civilian Review Board as a model for bringing grassroots leaders into the planning and decision-making process at City Hall.

Clearly this is not a simple process. Governing in a democracy is difficult. Change means disrupting the status quo. Corporate interests, both locally and nationally, will resist.

As Bernie Sanders likes to say, “Let us be clear,” the concentration of corporate power is the reality we are up against. A half dozen multinational corporations dominate every sector of the economy that grassroots movements are challenging:

·       Big Industrial scale commodity-based Ag, Meat, Fishing

·       Big Grocery Chains distributing Big Food products

·       Big Health Insurance, Big Hospitals, Big Pharma,

·       Big Oil, Big Fracked Gas, Big Plastic

·       Big Electric Utilities

·       Big Media, Big Advertising, Big Entertainment

·       Big Banks, Big Investors

Their domination also extends over our office holders. Their army of lobbyists writing legislation and funding the election of candidates who represent their corporate interests.

Grassroots movements are challenging these powerful corporate interests by advocating for:

·      Healthcare for All

·      Local, organic, healthy food for All

·      Living wage jobs for All

·      Homes guarantee for All

·      Free education for All

·      A Green New Deal that includes all the above

·      The end of corporate personhood/money as speech

·      Ranked Choice Voting so to level playing field for 3rd parties

·      Limiting the market power of corporations

·      The end of privatizing public services

The corporate oligarchy is resisting grassroots efforts to gain a seat at their Table. Grassroots activists, however, have history on their side. Gandhi’s dictum applies: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” 

We are well past Gandhi’s first two stages, so we welcome their fight. What are our odds? Gandhi brought down the British Empire. We can bring down the failed, unstable, fossil fueled, neoliberal global economy and the neoconservative foreign policies that protect the American Empire.

Our task in Columbus mirrors the larger efforts to effect changes in the global system. Acting locally while networked with our grassroots counterparts in the U.S. and around the globe, will frame a clear path forward. Grassroots solutions are sustainable. The global consumer economy is not. 

Here are some examples of how grassroots movements are pushing back at corporate interests and showing Columbus leaders that they can stop fighting change and begin to share power and implement the changes we advocate.

Clean Energy. The Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 campaign can radically transition the energy grid in Columbus to renewable energy. Energy aggregation policies designed to lower utility bills and require the utility company to provide green energy to residents was proposed several years ago but not acted upon. Thanks to grassroots pressure organized and led by Cathy Cowan Becker, our City Council has agreed to put this option to the voters in November. 

That’s step one. Assuming voters approve (highly likely based on similar energy aggregation initiatives), grassroots pressure is building for city government to require any successful bidder to invest and build our local community solar and wind power facilities. Further, Columbus operates its own electric utility service capable of designing local micro-grid based solar energy systems which could be located in low-income neighborhoods and provide low-cost energy to residents.

Community based solar systems, if successful, will decentralize the existing energy grid and change the role of electric utilities to serve as a backup supplier to local systems and the manager of micro grids to distribute power more efficiently. Such a direct investment in renewable energy can speed the transition to a fossil-free future by reducing green house gas emissions causing global warming and climate change.

Living Wage? Columbus now offers a minimum wage of at least $15 per hour to all city employees. Seattle and other cities now recognize that residents cannot live a decent life with dignity unless they can earn a living wage. Will Columbus leaders extend this policy to all working families? 

MIT developed a Living Wage Calculator that documents no county in the U.S. offers a living wage to all residents. This information is helping grassroots organizations like the Poor People’s Campaign and B.R.E.A.D. push for a living wage policy, knowing that 8 of the 10 most common jobs in Columbus do not pay a living wage. Grassroots pressure will be resisted by many corporate enterprises, but not all. City leaders are well aware that Columbus is one of the most economically segregated cities in the U.S.

Will Mayor Ginther bring these grassroots leaders to the Table, along with One Columbus leaders?  Imagine a discussion centering around the approach taken by the One Linden Cooperative initiative. This is another example of how city leaders can engage with grassroots groups, forge agreements, and demonstrate that real change, backed by popular demand, can effect a change that has been “off the table” for years.

Extending the minimum wage requirement for city employees to the private sector, as other cities have done, can overcome opposition from corporate interests if enough grassroots pressure is applied. The benefit of ensuring that every worker deserves the dignity of a living wage promises to lessen the need for affordable housing, as well as reducing food insecurity and increasing the learning potential of well-fed children in school.

Affordable Housing and Developers. The cozy relationship between commercial developers and City Council is no secret. The controversy over tax abatements to developers who have profited from the booming market in central Ohio has resonated strongly with the public, especially public-school advocates who would benefit from more taxes paid by wealthy developers.

In this context, and at a time when affordable housing is a high priority for Columbus leaders, there may be an opening to create a new model for addressing this need. Developers should not be expected to invest in low-income housing when they naturally prioritize projects that are more profitable, nor should they expect tax abatements.

The Affordable Housing Alliance of Central Ohio has documented that 54,000 household live at or near the poverty threshold and pay 50% or more of their income on rent.

As our city government reviews its budget priorities, they could play a more direct role in support of public housing. Instead of relying solely on public-private partnerships like Homeport, or rent subsidies, or Habitat for Humanity (which are all good), the City could “think small” (with no photo ops) and begin contracting with small and minority owned businesses to build and rehab homes and apartments using public tax dollars. Such an approach, and others, could be implemented if the City were to engage and bring to the Table grassroots leaders from the Affordable Housing Alliance, B.R.E.A.D., the Poor People’s campaign, and others.

Transit. Speaking of developers, Robert Weiler recently proposed that Columbus provide free bus transportation to all residents at an estimated cost of $43 million annually. Transit is a complex system, but this is the kind of radical change that will disrupt the status quo, but could offer a non-car solution with positive impact for all those who rely on public transit and could attract commuters away from their cars.

Health Care. The state of Ohio has legislation pending that would provide free health care for every resident. Such a policy created by SPAN (Single Payer Action Network) Ohio could put our state in the lead as a model for establishing health care as a right, and it will relieve the financial burden of small and large businesses to provide health insurance for their employees. Again, this is a disruptive policy likely to be opposed by some insurance companies, hospitals, and by some political pundits and think tanks. But putting SPAN leaders at the table could influence our Columbus leaders to reach out to other cities and advocate for such a statewide change in the health care system.

Food. Strengthening our local food system to provide high quality local food to low income residents has been addressed in several ways, including the Franklin County Food Action Plan, various services offered by Local Matters, subsidies for purchasing food at Farmer Markets, support for community gardens, and Mid-Ohio Food Bank programs. OSU is committed to sourcing 25% of their food locally by 2025. All good, though OSU has been working on their plan for two years and still not ready yet.

The elephant in this room, however, is a food system driven by Big Ag and Big Meat and Big Fast Food, and Big Grocery chains that deliver commodity-based produce and processed foods to satisfy an American diet that is widely recognized as unhealthy. The concentrated power of these corporate interests have corrupted legislators who create the very policies that have eliminated thousands of small farms, subsidize commodity foods like soy and corn that are sent to animal feedlots, to food processing plants, and to ethanol plants.

Grassroots movements are fighting to reverse these priorities, but to succeed our leaders must be willing to engage with Local Matters, OEFFA (Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association), the Organic Consumers Association, and others to stop subsidizing industrial foods and start providing incentives to expand local food systems.

There may be an opening as the industrial food system poses an increasing threat to the environment. Monoculture agriculture depends on fossil fuels and chemical herbicides at a time when the industry behemoths like Monsanto/Bayer, Cargill, Dow/Dupont, and Syngenta are being sued successfully and coming under increasing scrutiny from regulators in California and European countries, including health risks from cancer.

The most hopeful indicator is the shift in public opinion supporting local food systems, urban homesteading, and the rapid rise of veganism. Further, the World Health Organization (WHO) has reported the only way to feed the world population sustainably is through re-localizing food systems and reversing the transfer of rural farmers to megacities. Our local leaders can continue to support and increase subsidies to strengthen the local food distribution infrastructure.

Finance and Credit. There is a growing movement to create public banks as a potential solution for addressing the investment needs of communities when the private sector is either not interested, unable, or unwilling to risk making loans. For the most part, private banks often scoff at loans for affordable housing developments, credit for small businesses and entrepreneurs, or loans for residential and commercial renewable energy and energy efficiency projects.

The Public Banking Institute (PBI) is the nation’s leading advocacy organization to create public banks in cities, counties and states. The state of North Dakota has operated a successful public bank for 100 years through every recession and the Great Depression. Revenues from the state capitalize the bank, and citizens are served locally by community banks and credit unions that provide checking and savings accounts. If a farm owner or business needs a loan, the state bank provides an interest rate that is typically lower than available from a commercial bank. The interest paid on the loan is returned to the public bank to benefit North Dakota. This saves the citizens millions of dollars that would normally go to Wall Street.

In Columbus, for instance, revenue from taxes automatically allocates a quarter of every dollar to service our debt. Over a 10, 20, or 30-year bond issue, Wall Street might receive anywhere from 1/3 to 1/2 of the total loan in profits for its investors. If Columbus or Franklin County were to establish a public bank those profits could be reinvested locally.

Public banking is gaining traction and several governors are championing the approach. California has already passed legislation authorizing any city or county to establish a public bank. New Jersey’s governor ran on a platform to establish a public bank, and many grassroots organizations are proposing a public bank option.

In Columbus, the grassroots efforts of Simply Living and the Ohio Sustainable Business Council are forming a coalition of grassroots organizations to lobby for a public bank. A Town Hall webinar on Public Banking is planned in the fall with support from PBI.

Now is the time to Push Back

Similar challenges to corporate interests and concentrated power can be found in every broken system, and all these systems are interrelated.

When 1 in 4 Ohio children and 50 percent nationally   are food insecure, or living in substandard housing, too often without health care, earning an income that can’t withstand a $400 unexpected bill, have to choose between paying for medicine or food or utilities, etc., we need, as Rev. Dr. William Barber has eloquently stated, a national call for a moral revival.

Barber is co-chair for The Poor People’s Campaign, which has created a platform that addresses “intersectional” demands for policies to heal our communities.

Now is the time to push back, to support grassroots organizations that propose real, structural, disruptive “radical” changes that can heal broken systems and revitalize our communities.

Chuck Lynd, Simply Living Outreach Volunteer Ohio Sustainable Business Council (OSBC) Board Member Central Ohio Climate Action Coalition, Administrator 614-354-6172 (cell) "Localization is a solution multiplier."